Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

A categorized index of all work that has appeared on this site is available by looking under the current month in the Blog Archive section and selecting Index.

This site is listed in BlogCatalog and
Literature Blogs
Literature blog

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A Stroll around Lake Bled

As the visitor enters Slovenia from Italy, the landscape changes from Midwest-flat to wooded and mountainous. The town of Bled, not far from the capital Ljubljana, is in the Gorenjska or mountainous region, what under the Habsburgs was called the Upper Carniola.

Though not agriculturally rich, this area came in many ways to represent Slovenia. In 1689 Janez Vajkard Valvasor (author also of the Three-Part Theater of Human Death) preserved over three thousand, five hundred pages of information about local culture and natural history in Die Ehre deß Hertzogthums Crain (The Glory of the Duchy of Carniola). A precise and scientific-minded observer, Valvasor’s indefatigable researches eventually exhausted his resources, and he was obliged to sell his castle, ending his life in poverty.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Gorenskja dialect became the basis of standard Slovenian, and the region produced many important philologists and writers, including the poet France Prešeren a sonneteer and author of “Zdravljica” (“A Toast”) which was widely used as propaganda during the 1848 revolution against Austrian rule and has since been adopted as national anthem. His Krst pri Savici (Baptism on the Savica) which describes battles between pagan and Christian Slavs and the romance through which the pagan leader is converted is considered a brief national epic.

During the nineteenth century nationalist movement, the Upper Carniolan folk costume was adopted as a national symbol, and even in the mid-twentieth century, the popular music of Slavko Avsenik and his brother came to dominate the Alpine and polka styles of Europe and the United States, making him one of the most popular roots artists in the world.

A better stage set for such regional enthusiasm could hardly be imagined. We enjoyed a room on the shore of Lake Bled with perhaps the most enchanting view I have ever enjoyed. The snow-covered Julian Alps in the distance and the closer heavily forested hills, the clear ultra-blue lake fed from the Bohinj Glacier with its small island (the only island, one is told, in Slovenia) on which stands the frescoed Church of the Assumption, the sheer rock cliff on one shore with Bled Castle on top, all this forms a truly storybook picture, very nearly too perfect (like a fussily-tended Victorian home or two I have seen). An inviting path extends the four miles around the shore.

Accessible from the center of Bled, the trail presents the most civilized experience of nature. Mute swans drift offshore, some with their wings slightly lifted in the most elegant manner, while ducks paddle nearby, and song-birds chirp, sing, and peep above. Now and then one passes an old villa, most converted to bed and breakfasts, but one in a highly romantic state of collapse, its roof disconsolate on an old tiled floor.

The walker passes beneath St. Martin’s Church, a plain neo-Gothic church which is perfectly at home in the scene though it was built at the turn of the twentieth century. Here one might see Slavko Pengov’s Last Supper in which Judas Iscariot appears with the features of Vladimir Lenin. This satiric jab remained uncensored due to Tito’s differences with the Soviet Union, but Pengov’s renderings of heroic partisans adorning Tito’s home on the other side of the lake will strike the viewer as more doctrinaire Socialist Realism, though critics have inferred more heterodox opinions from details inserted by the pacifist artist. The building itself was originally constructed by German POWs, but is now the Hotel Vila Bled, with rooms booked far in advance. The Karađorđević kings who ruled the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes between the world wars were equally fond of Bled. When it comes to perks there seems to be little difference between monarchists and communists.

Visiting the castle today one may admire the drawbridge, the solid Romanesque tower, courtyards on two levels, and a sheer drop down to the lake-side. Beneath its imposing presence, though, the walker’s thoughts turn to those who lived under its domination subject for over a thousand years to feudal extortion, paying tribute in produce and labor to the agents of the proprietors atop the hill. Perhaps the nobles were at times troubled by conscience, for we know that in 1004 the last of the Ottonian Holy Roman Emperors Henry II (later sainted) donated the territory to the bishop of Bled, Albuin of Brixen who appointed underlings to administer the lands. Portraits of Henry and his wife Kunigunde of Luxembourg adorn the old chapel with its trompe l’oeil ceiling. It may be that the prelates eventually tired of dealing with their tenants. We know that they leased it to the Kreigh family who continued to occupy it when the region came under Habsburg rule in 1278. Insurgent peasants sent complaints to their bishop and king several times in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and, finding no redress, attacked the stronghold more than once. One lord, Hartman Kreigh, was killed by angry farmers. Once order was restored, his wife Poliksena had cast a memorial bell of gold and silver, meaning to place it in the chapel on the island. On its way there, though, a storm overturned their boat and the bell sank to the bottom. It was never recovered, though legend says it may still be heard on occasion, ringing from the depths. It is unclear whether such spectral music would remind the listener of Hartman’s greatness or of his cruelty. Families of those who had rebelled were subject then to even greater levies to punish them for generations to come.

In the mid-19th century the castle passed into the hands of venture capitalists hoping to make money with a hotel. Though tourism was rapidly growing, all the more after a health spa was established below, the castle’s value remained for the most part in the spectacle it presented. Under communism, of course, it was state-owned, as such a place should be, and today for €8 one may poke around. The management is today ambitiously entrepreneurial. For a fee someone will print the visitor’s name with the castle’s image on a parchment-like page, or a monk, wearing a robe which may have come from some order or perhaps from central casting, will draw off for him an overpriced bottle of wine. Couples can rent the spot for weddings and get not only the regal (or at least baronial) setting, but in addition a handful of people in vaguely Renaissance costume. And there’s a restaurant that can be recommended at least for its fine large danse macabre fresco and Garden of Eden scenes, all the more appealing for their unsophisticated draftsmanship.

Proceeding on the trail on the lake’s edge, the walker passes the sizable and serious rowing center. International competitions are regularly held in this glorious spot. A short bit later comes a camp ground from which I heard the sounds of partying and singing in German. After this point there are few buildings until one has returned almost to the starting point. By this point of my visit, night had fallen, multiplying the delight of the scene now etherealized and mystified by obscurity. Images reminiscent of violence, oppression, spiritual aspiration, cupidity, vulgarity, beauty, and philosophy jostle against each other as they tend to do in this life. With the turning of the wheel of fortune, the borders threaten to blur between the lords and the luckless, the pious and the vicious, the lovely and the hideous. If the synthesis is elusive, the visitor has the option to stop thinking and retreat at this point into the considerable calories of a local specialty, the kremna rezina or cream slice whose generous layers of cream and custard are barely contained by a bit of puff pastry. After consuming only one, ratiocination tends to slow in the most comforting way.

Pierce Penniless

Thanks are due to the Penguin English Library for reprinting a generous selection of Nashe in The Unfortunate Traveller and other works, edited and introduced by J. B. Steane. Page references in parentheses are to that edition. Numbers in brackets are endnotes.

I, like many, had known Thomas Nashe only as the author of The Unfortunate Traveller, the picaresque [1] Elizabethan novel, so rich in violence that gratuitous suffering becomes a theme in itself. [2] This book has long been a favorite; it is so lively and colloquial, precise and opinionated, so full of antique humor and ebullient language. The same qualities are evident in his other works. Few today will take an interest in the controversies behind the partisan pamphleteering that made his name in his own time when he was hired, as were Lyly and Greene, to defend the Established Church against the attacks of reformers whose essays from underground presses used the name Martin Marprelate.

Some things, however, have not changed in four hundred years. Having lived for decades below the poverty line, I found his Pierce Penniless, in which the writer complains of poetry and scholarship’s going unrewarded while “base men” prosper, more relevant to my own condition. “A scrivener,” he writes, is “better paid for an obligation, than a scholar for the best poem he can make,” and in general “those that deserve best” are “kept under by dunces.” (54-55) Frustrated and desperate, he prepares a “supplication” to the devil, through his representative, the Knight of the Post (a professional perjurer), seeking better treatment.

On this pretext, Nashe constructs a panorama of the Seven Deadly Sins, all chatty and learned and poetic and effervescently witty, from which he feels free to diverge on the least excuse or none. Certain of these bypaths have attracted much interest, in particular, the concluding one in defense of the drama, in which theater is in general defended as the least harmful of the vices men pursue and thus deserving of toleration. Among the other excurses are a discussion of demonology which in its curious inquiry recalled Burton to me and an amusing account of national ethnic stereotypes: the “cunning, proud” Italian, the Frenchman “wholly proud of deceivable courtship,” the Danes “the most gross and senseless proud dolts.” (73-74)

In contrast to a moralistic cataloguer of sins, Nashe is always an entertainer. On the whole he pursues the classic line of generating comedy in Frye’s low-mimetic mode. [3] In this inversion of tragic pity and fear, the reader at once is comforted by superiority to the sinners portrayed and mildly troubled that each is only an exaggeration of himself, and sometimes very little exaggerated.

Nashe is brilliant at phrases and jokes and sudden scholarly citations. He is not as good at larger structures. Just as the incidents experienced by the picaro often lack a significant development one from another and may be shifted about like identical beads on a string (the same is true of classic Chinese novels like Water Margin), Nashe’s expositions are marvels of teeming activity. Only when the readers steps back to reconsider is it clear that he has wandered through the piece, going now this way and now that. Yet one fails to notice or, at any rate, to be disappointed because every moment was wholly absorbing and, in its modest way, rewarding. Katastases are delivered with the regularity of a stand-up comedian’s, though Nashe’s punch-lines are of the angry, biting kind, far closer the lacerated heart of Dean Swift than the cosmic belly laugh of Rabelais. The target shifts its targets in a play of depth from satire on an individual man to fashions and abuses of the powerful of his own day, and more generally to human failings in general and finally to the absurdity of life itself.

Thus, he wisely chooses the schematic design of the deadly sins for Pierce Penniless, unable to resist a few accretions on the fore and aft ends. The topic, a common theme for homilies, provides an altogether medieval setting for this decidedly Renaissance work. Because the overall design is often loose, I shall focus on a single passage, chosen very nearly at random. Indeed, given the book’s nature, one can only pass from one rhetorical figure, one joke or citation, one wry partisan dart to the next.

When Nashe, after discussing overeating, says he will “descend” to a “Complaint of Drunkenness,” the reader feels he is the average Christian being conducted like Dante on a tour of Hell. (104-105) But the topic is no sooner mentioned, than it is blamed on the Dutch whom English military forces had supported in 1585 against Habsburg rule. [4] In another few sentences, one set of foreigners is forgotten, and Nashe is blaming instead the social-climbing cavalier, a “frenchified” tipsy miles gloriosus. The moves from an individual focus to a national one to the universal is smooth and rapid enough to bring the reader along unquestioning.

The imagery is vivid and realistic. Every term is multiplied in a sort of slightly dilute Euphuism. [5] A drunk is one who may be seen “wallowing in the streets or “sleeping under the board.” “We” [that is, the proper people] would “spit at him.” But the image is yet insufficient – we would spit at him “as a toad” and call him a “swine.” Nashe spouts slang and vogue expressions to describe barroom activities: one must drink “super nagulum, carouse the hunter’s hoop, quaff upsey freze cross, with healths, gloves, mumps, frolics, and a thousand such domineering inventions.”

The finale sentence, so grand a crescendo of rhetoric as to deserve quoting in whole, ends in a soft elegiac tone appropriate to all human folly. “Let him be indued with never so many virtues, and have as goodly proportion and favour as nature can bestow upon a man, yet if he be thirsty after his own destruction, and hath no joy or comfort but when he is drowning his soul in a gallon pot, that one beastly imperfection will utterly obscure all that is commendable in him, and all his good qualities sink like lead down to the bottom of his carousing cups, where they will lie like lees and dregs, dead and unregarded of any man.”

Nashe is always bobbing in an ocean of words with neither beginning nor end, and so it is that he can conclude his work only by willfully dropping the curtain, both the curtain of his drama and that which conceals the author as Oz: “And so I break off this endless argument of speech abruptly.” (145)

1. In spite of the strictures of Nashe’s worthy editor McKerrow and his perceptive critic Hibbard to whom the term picaresque is inappropriate.

2. According to Steane the narrative is “a procession of cruelties” (31).

3. Frye was only following Aristotle here for whom comedy was “an imitation of inferior people,” though for Aristotle the economically and the morally low were closely associated. (Poetics 1449a32)

4. The support of the Dutch was part of the intermittent Anglo-Spanish War. Nashe had already named Philip of Spain “as Great an Enemy to mankind as the Devil.” (81)

5. The practice had been approved by medieval critics under the name amplificatio.

Moon Goin' Down [Charley Patton]

Ellipsis is a device characteristic of folk song. Narrative, for instance, is omitted between exchanges of dialogue in classic English balladry. Sometimes the transmission process edits a song, with the audience assuming deleted information, though over time such changes can render the words obscure or alter their basic significance. Such decentering may enhance or enfeeble the lyric’s effect. Charley Patton’s “Moon Goin’ Down” [1] well illustrates the successful use of this elliptical style in the Delta blues.

Oh well, where were you now, baby,
Clarksdale mill burned down.
Oh well, where were you now, baby,
Clarksdale mill burned down.
I were way down Sunflower,
With my face all fulla frowns.

Lord, I think I heard the Helena whistle,
Helena whistle,
Helena whistle blow.
Lord, I ain’t gonna stop walkin’
Till I get in my rider’s door.

After summoning his audience with an introductory “well,” Patton’s song begins with the fundamental blues note, a cry of unsatisfied desire. The singer is looking for his lady, calling out to her. Her absence is amplified by association with a catastrophic fire in Clarksdale. Perhaps she was in the doomed factory and is no longer alive. The mixture of tenses, while very likely a dialect usage, expresses anxiety and frustration as well as projecting the lovers’ separation from the past into the present in an almost cinematic way.

Her answer seems for a moment cheerful. She was far from the deadly fire in a place called Sunflower, a name with the most positive associations. Only a moment later, however, she describes her face as “all fulla frowns.” Though we know nothing specific of her frustrations, they seem to mirror those of the singer.

In the next verse the “Helena whistle” sounds a plaintive note of need, similar to the distant sound of wild geese in Chinese poetry. The whistle blows three times, with each repetition increasing the tone of tense melancholy. The singer declares that he will keep walking, evoking the image of life as a pilgrimage or a journey. Resolution arrives with the destination rhyme balancing “whistle blow”: viz. “my rider’s door.” This metaphor neatly invokes a world of experience through the implied term “easy rider,” [3] an illicit lover (as the courtly love couple too must be adulterous according the Andreas Capellanus). The lewd implication of his lover’s “door” jostles with fainter suggestions of the grave, the earth’s lid, and a final end of “walking.” On the realistic level, the words very naturally denote simple relief at returning home after a time on the road.

The progress of images resembles what Pound through Fenollosa thought happened in Chinese poetry. After the initial statement of longing, the reader encounters the burned mill. The reader must connect the two even if it takes a challenging leap. Then follow the huge sunflower and the unhappy grimace. In the second stanza the sonic image of the whistle is succeeded by the walker and the arrival at the threshold. The relation between the parts is never explicit. The telegraphic lyrical style is, of course, reinforced by music and the artist’s powerful performing style, though these elements must remain untreated here.
The moon of the title never appears in the lyric, yet it sets the tone precisely. The setting of the moon will plunge the world, already ill-lit, into deeper darkness. In Patton’s other recording with the same title, the “moon going’ down” is directly juxtaposed with a scene of the singer’s lover telling him “Lord, I don't want you hangin’ ‘round.” In the darkness of night the wayfarer may lose the road or be set upon, though in this alternative text he has the blessing of the North Star, a central image of freedom in spirituals. With this remnant of hope, unmentioned in the text above, the singer summons the spirit to make art of his pain and to imagine a better future once arrived in his “rider’s door” or in the equivalent “green house” of the second version.

The use of a well-established corpus of phrases, lines, and songs in the Delta blues tradition, like similar material in more thoroughly oral cultures, allowed the poet to create more subtle and sophisticated works. Through sideways allusion, implication, and ellipsis, through signifying in fact, these poets created some of the most beautiful poems of the twentieth century.

1. Patton recorded another version using the same title. The text follows.

Aw, that moon has gone down, baby, North Star 'bout to shine
Aw, the moon goin' down, baby, North Star 'bout to shine
Rosetta Henry told me, "Lord, I don't want you hangin' 'round"

Oh well, where were you now, baby, Clarksdale mill burned down1?
Oh well, where were you now, babe, Clarksdale mill burned down?
(spoken: Boy, you know where I were)
"I were way down Sunflower with my face all full-a frowns"

They's a house over yonder, painted all over green
They's a house over yonder, painted all over green
(spoken: Boy, you know I know it's over there!)

2. This association existed as far back as the Shijing. Cf. also Du Fu’s “Climbing the Yue Yang Tower with Xia Shi-er,” Yuan dynasty play lyrics, and a great many other texts.

3. The significance of the term is suggested by Big Bill Broonzy’s claim to have heard early blues from a songster named See See Rider in 1908. Though the song of that title (with all its variations) has been done by a long list of singers, Ma Rainey’s 1924 recording is one of the most beautiful.